It has been another day of dueling hashtags on Twitter, as both #KyleRittenhouseIsGuilty and #FreeKyleRittenhouse were trending as the trial of the 18-year-old continued in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse was charged with killing two people – Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber – and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, claims he acted in self-defense during protests against police violence in August 2020.
Even before the trial had begun, Rittenhouse had supporters and detractors across social media, but it was following his testimony on Wednesday that the differing opinions truly made the rounds on Twitter. Unfortunately, a lot of the tweets were not from legal experts.
Numerous images and facts have been presented, oftentimes without context.
HillReporter.com’s Tara Dublin (@taradublinrocks) shared a photo of the then 17-year-old with an AR-15, captioned, “This is a picture of a not at all innocent person #KyleRittenhouseIsGuilty.”
Author Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) defended the 18-year-old and offered a factoid of the three victims and tweeted, “If you would like to check the stats of the two white people who Kyle Rittenhouse shot in obvious self-defense— here you go. Our FBI knew Kyle was innocent. Our media knew Kyle was innocent. They all allowed a teenager to suffer horribly and publicly to feed the BLM lie.”
Those were just two examples of the types of tweets that were making the rounds on Thursday, where the context is lost or some of the information wasn’t entirely accurate.
Yet, these and other tweets continued to present the “facts” of the case.
“A lot of misinformation that is shared on social media is actually a tiny grain of the truth that gets amplified so that those who see it believe it to be completely true,” warned Prof. Ericka Menchen-Trevino, assistant professor in the School of Communication at the American University in Washington, D.C.
“It isn’t really that hard to debunk misinformation on social media, but it is harder to explain the subtitles in how some of it is presented,” said Menchen-Trevino.
“Anytime we have these smoke screens on social media we need to remember that it is really people sharing their opinion – not their educated opinion – and they’re not looking to present the facts,” added Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer, also in the American University School of Communication. “The general public that is looking to get their news from Twitter or any other social network isn’t really bothering to look at the real story. They’re looking for the quick nuggets and the headlines that can be easily consumed.”
Increasingly this is why social media isn’t really all that trusted – because it is so difficult to tell what is real or not.
Yet, as has been seen this week, social media has the potential to impact the legal system, at least indirectly. Already, movies and TV shows have impacted what those serving on juries expect to see – this includes the “CSI Effect,” where some have had higher expectations about scientific evidence than what they actually see in a court case.
Social media could present a new trial as potential jurors could be exposed to such “facts.” Even if directed not to read about a case, such information could show up in one’s social feeds.
“It is impossible now for facts of a case not to get out,” said Mollica. “It could be tough to find a truly impartial person.”
The Celebrities Impact
Even if juries aren’t swayed by social media, the public could be – especially if it is shared by someone who is held in high regard. One particular tweet regarding the Rittenhouse case came from the NBA’s LeBron James (@KingJames), who responded to the 18-year-old’s testimony, during which the young defendant broke down in tears.
“What tears????? I didn’t see one. Man knock it off! That boy ate some lemon heads before walking into court,” James, who has remained a vocal black rights activist, tweeted on Wednesday evening.
That tweet, which featured a trio of laughing emojis, was liked more than 200,000 times and had been retweeted more than 30,000 times. However, not everyone agreed with him. Many called out James, saying his was an inappropriate response.
“You’re literally known as the king of faking injuries, flopping, and crying to refs. Maybe sit this one out?” tweeted conservative podcaster Cabot Phillips (@cabot_phillips).
James is hardly the first celebrity to jump on a bandwagon, yet the question could be asked what credibility he or others have on such issues.
“There are plenty of celebrities including actors, athletes and influencers who simply feel the need to weigh in on these things,” said Mollica. “A lot of people who then follow the celebrity will blindly hit like or retweet. Fortunately, a lot will not.”
In this case, James’ opinion likely won’t matter, even as plenty of celebrities weigh-in where they think they have an opinion – one that certainly isn’t educated in the least.
“And, we’ve also seen a lot of celebrities who have had to walk back what they posted on social media,” said Mollica.
Prof. Menchen-Trevino offered a final takeaway to the response that the Rittenhouse case is receiving, “Not every trial gets this year of social media attention. Most are hardly noticed. And for the general public, a lot of people prefer to tune it out.”